Out of Balance: A Look at Snack Foods in Secondary Schools across the States

Quick Summary

How healthy are the snack foods sold in secondary schools via vending machines, school stores and snack bars? A recent report on unhealthy snack foods published by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—suggests the issue could be more than bite-sized.


Out of Balance: A Look at Snack Foods in Secondary Schools across the States
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Since 1980, rates of childhood overweight and obesity have tripled. While several factors have contributed to this, the bottom line is that many children are eating more calories than they burn, with a significant quantity of these calories consumed during the school day.1 Overweight children and adolescents are at an increased risk of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, sleep disorders, and high cholesterol.2-7

Many schoolchildren consume up to half of their calories at schools, and school foods and beverages can have a significant impact on children’s diets and weight. In addition, the availability of snack foods progressively increases by school level.8 Half of secondary school students consume at least one snack foodi a day9 at school, an average of 273 to 336 calories per day. This amount is significant considering that an excess of 110 to 165 calories per day may be responsible for rising rates of childhood obesity.10

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—recently analyzed data on the types of snack foods and beverages sold in secondary schoolsii via vending machines, school stores, and snack bars (see Figure 1). The data set was extracted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) School Health Profiles 2010: Characteristics of Health Programs Among Secondary Schools in Selected U.S. Sites—a biennial assessment that uses surveys of principals and lead health education teachers to measure health policies and practices in secondary schools on a state-by-state basis across the nation.iii (See Appendix 1 for more information on the methodology of this report.)

Ensuring that schools sell nutritious foods is critical to improving children’s diets. Evidence shows that strong nutrition standards for snack foods sold in schools reduce students’ weight gain.11 Furthermore, the availability of low-nutrient, high-calorie snack foods during the school day is associated with increased intake of calories,12, 13 and decreased intake of fruits and vegetables among students.14, 15 Even small changes to students’ school-based diets—like replacing a candy bar with an apple—may reduce their risk of tooth decay, obesity, and chronic illness through decreased calorie, fat, and sugar intake.


Date added:
Nov 1, 2012

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